“One thing you’ll notice walking around Capitol Hill is, this place is run by very young people,” says Eric Johnson, leading a group of students on a tour. “Um,” he adds, “I’m 33.” Eric goes on to explain how the system works: “Republicans run the show in all three branches of government. Congressman Wexler is a Democrat. So what that means is, it’s not our fault whatever it is that happens.”
The kids laugh, and you’re made aware of an ongoing irony. As much as young people are shut out of visible decision-making in the so-called corridors of power, the fact is, the energy, overtime, and sheer nerve that it takes to run the government are primarily provided by young staffers. And as much as those staffers — on either side of the aisle — might feel frustrated at or responsible for “whatever it is that happens,” they remain committed to their jobs, their bosses, or their ideals. Even when it costs them.
The Hill, Sundance Channel’s new verité series, spends six episodes showing those costs, as well as the terrific rewards. Focused on the staff members who work for Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler, representing Florida’s 19th District, the series is lively, smart, and wholly absorbing. From intra-office debates to inter-party romances, the series exposes not only the staffers’ devotion, but also their struggles to make sense of the sometimes exasperating side-taking the job requires. Unlike so much reality TV, The Hill actually respects its subjects.
As Eric — Wexler’s Chief of Staff — reveals early in the first episode, “Fighting the Good Fight,” he was young when he decided to pursue “politics.” He ran for his local school board at age 18, as a Republican, and eventually had to face the disjunction between his commitments and his party: “I had to come out as a Democrat before I came out about my sexuality,” he remembers, both identities equally significant in his self-understanding and, as he came to see, his self-presentation. His “good fight” is personal and political by definition, combining the different facets of his life, indicated when his partner James and their young son Kai visit the office.
Increasingly throughout the series, personal and professional demands compete for staffers’ time and energy. The first episode plunks you down in September 2004, the midst of the presidential campaign, as Wexler’s crew are fighting another good fight, trying to get John Kerry elected. The perpetual lack of time and abundance of chaos bring tensions that reveal the staffers’ sense of “family.” Eric describes Communications Director Lale Mamaux, she’s “like the typical wife: she fights and screams at me and tells me what to do and doesn’t have sex with me.”
They see the humor in such situations, even as they argue passionately. Later in the series, Eric and Lale scrap over whether she treats his “issues” in the same way she treats those she feels are important; when Lale calls one of Eric’s concerns “boring,” he looks both confirmed and frustrated. The series is built on the details of such interactions, as the staffers and the Congressman juggle their commitments, compromising repeatedly while increasingly chafing against this political necessity. As Legislative Assistant Halie Soifer puts it during the first episode, “I love the fight. It’s all about the fight.”
The “fight” takes many forms and helps to reveal and define character. The Hill, sharply directed by Ivy Meerpol, makes clear its complexity, urgency, and appeal. Halie’s own interest in politics was also nurtured at an early age: a childhood photo shows her with her father, smiling and surrounded by people with placards. A childhood photo shows her with her dad, smiling for the camera and surrounded by folks carrying placards; “They were hippies,” she says, “So they went to lots of protests.”
Her off-screen boyfriend, however, is starting to trouble her, in 2004. “He thinks it’s cute that I’m a liberal Democrat. He thinks it’s funny. We fight. I personally think it’s disgusting that he’s a Republican. I can’t believe that anyone would vote for Bush, especially someone that I’m dating.” She presses on: “It is an ongoing dilemma, because you wonder can you share a life with someone who sees the world completely different than you.” Lale endures similar doubts concerning her tendency to “date Republicans.” Gazing into her refrigerator, where she keeps water and Gatorade, Lale laments her “pathetic, like, boring love life.”
The election makes this “dilemma” more acute. Assigned to make the Congressman’s views public, the staff is continually writing press releases, updating his official webpage and trying to articulate his views so they make both his independence and party affiliation clear (his independence becoming more pronounced as the series goes on). At the same time, they also help to shape those views for public consumption, whether reconciling them with previous positions held by the Party and/or the Congressman, or finding new articulations and ways forward.
Most of these ways involve TV. Like many Representatives, Wexler spends a lot of time on TV or getting ready to appear on TV. on their way to a taping for a brief segment on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country in anticipation of the first presidential debate, Eric sums up the dilemma of talking without saying much: “You gotta remember that it’s very easy to win a debate when you have no regard for the truth and no details of policy. And that’s what the president does.” Watching the debate together, the team comments and catcalls like any other viewers might, happy when their guy scores, jeering when the opponent fidgets or appears to lose.
Post-election (they watch the returns mapped out on TV in red and blue, their faces growing grimmer by the minute), they don’t spend much time lamenting the loss (Halie says she scheduled a root canal for Inauguration Day, to mark the pain she was feeling), but move on immediately to the next steps. The series follows their efforts to respond to an array of “issues,” including the Scooter Libby investigation, John Roberts’ nomination to the Supreme Court, and Hurricane Katrina (the federal response especially infuriates Wexler, who visits victims moved to his district in Florida and speaks out loudly on their behalf, and against the “reconstruction plan” that threatens workers’ rights).
The war in Iraq is a consistent focus for the staff. Should Wexler call for troop withdrawal on a “timetable”? How to claim U.S. “credibility” when it’s so clearly compromised? How to make a coherent position out of simultaneous needs to stay in country, to rebuild what’s been broken) and get out of a situation that produces more deaths and outrage at the U.S. by the minute? Whether discussing the numbers of casualties or the way that mail reaches troops, the staff members plainly want to make differences, small and large. Fast-paced and unsentimental, the series makes their desires surprisingly engaging.
Early on, Halie diagnoses the Democrats’ 2004 loss as a loss of focus. “I think there needs to be a change of strategy,” she says, “I think that we need to embrace who we are, you know? I think we need to stand for what we believe in.” As revealed compellingly throughout The Hill, the question of “what we believe in” must be addressed again and again, as contexts and possibilities change.